With this post, I bring you a new series of travels “off the beaten path”, this time north with our truck (canoe on top) from our home in Santa Cruz, CA through northern California, Oregon and Washington, fifteen hundred miles up the Inside Passage of British Colombia and Alaska via the Maritime Highway ferry, then on to the Alaskan arctic, the interior of Alaska, the Yukon and British Colombia, then down through Yellowstone and home via the Green River in Idaho and Nevada.
The Alaskan Maritime Highway
At one time or another, most of us have browsed an atlas or map of North America and gazed with wonder at the incredible maze of islands, fjords inlets, straits, islands and passages that is southeast Alaska and coastal British Colombia. Stretching more than a thousand miles from the Washington state border to the roadhead at Haines in Alaska and beyond lies an immense wilderness of temperate rainforest, great mountain ranges, glassy calm inlets and rumbling glaciers nearly a mile thick. Thousands of islands, some larger than Rhode Island populate the entire passage, with tens of thousands of bays, inlets and coves creating something like an enormous maritime maze. What you see on any good map of the area suggests the arterial system of some complex animal more than actual geography. Virtually no roads connect the small towns and villages in this place, they being only accessible by sea or air. Because of this, places like Ketchikan, Wrangel, Petersberg and dozens of other villages, not to mention the capital of Alaska, Juneau, are dependent on the Alaska Maritime Highway which connects them to the outside world.
Along with big commercial trucks, RV’s, backpackers and Alaskan locals, we boarded the good ship Colombia at Bellingham Washington, the southern terminus of the Maritime Highway. After storing our truck in the bowels of the ferry, we settled in for the three day fifteen hundred mile journey up the Inside Passage. Our home on-board was a “stateroom” – read two bunks and a little bathroom. But most of 0ur time was spent on-deck, watching the amazing sequence of wildlife and spectacular scenery pass by. Humpback whales, busy sifting herring, capelin, sandlance and krill from the nutrient-ritch waters would blow as we passed, their massive bulk rolling and diving for another round of bio-hoovering in the jade green waters. Bald eagles would sit on stately perches, their heads rotating in unison with our passage. Small fishing boats would pass, on their way to the next salmon run. The captain would at times navigate the Colombia though straits between islands so narrow you could easily toss a rock out either side and hit the shore – that is some kind of navigating, particularly against eight knot currents wielding a thousand ton vessel.
On board, we had time to chat with fellow voyagers. Kayla, who called Jackson Hole Wyoming home, was off to spend her third summer backpacking through Alaska. In her 50’s, tall, weathered and lean, Kayla sat with Jane and I watching pelagic seabirds as the Colombia pushed on through the Inside Passage. As time passed, she described the more than half dozen close encounters she’d had over the years with grizzly bears in both Alaska and Wyoming. There was fear, she said, but mostly awe. Awe of their intelligence most of all. Fred was in his 80’s and on his way to re-visit the Cold War B-29 bomber base north of Fairbanks where he served in the early 50’s. If nuclear armageddon started, he would have been the first to respond. Several modern military families were on-board as well, en route to new posts throughout Alaska. The father of one crewed on an ice breaker in the arctic. His wife grew up in Nome. Her father was an Alaskan State Trooper responsible for policing the remote arctic villages along the Bering and Chukchi Seas. She described one fine fall morning when a polar bear decided to take a stroll down Main Street, disappearing later that day out onto the fast forming pack ice.
For me half the fun and adventure of traveling to remote places is just this – meeting interesting people, with time to hang out and talk. The further afield you travel, the more interesting they become.
Making our way north, the Colombia stopped in succession of small towns and villages: Ketchican, then Wrangell, Petersberg and finally the capital city of Juneau. In Ketchican, a bumper sticker on an ancient, rusted pickup read “Vegetarian is an ancient indian word for lousy hunter”. It was placed just below the NRA sticker. Sunday in Wrangell seemed deserted until we walked passed the town bar. Everyone in the town seemed to be in there. A placard on the door read “Hippies: use back door”…
Next, Glacier Bay, fishing for giant halibut and exploring the temperate rainforest and tidewater glaciers.
Above, the lush alpine meadows below Mt. Ranier in Washington, a stop on our way up to the Maritime Highway.
The Good Ship Colombia, Queen Of the Maritime Highway
Jane and Our Truck in Colombia’s Vehicle Hold.
Traversing the Inside Passage